Playtime is, in the overstated words of its usually taciturn filmmaker Jacques Tati, “probably the smallest script ever to be made in 70 millimeter.” Maybe these are the words of a man still feeling the financial sting of a flaming, career-halting box office wreck (Tati, noted control freak, ended up losing the rights to all his films in the aftermath), but there’s still a ring of truth in what he says. Scripts are tools used by filmmakers to guide viewers through narratives, to show them which people they should pay attention to, which storylines they will eventually watch unspool, which characters will reach their change of heart through plot-driven catharses. Playtime is a cinematic epic that’s also totally (for some unnervingly) unmoored from the safety of narrative guidelines. Just as the people inhabiting his ultra-modern approximation of Paris gradually learn to circumvent the right-angled jungle of contemporary urban architecture, Tati’s film weans willing viewers from their fixations with linear, structured movie storytelling.
Which isn’t to say Playtime is a comedy without punchlines. On the contrary, it probably contains more gags per shot than any movie this side of Airplane! Many of them are simultaneous. As Monsieur Hulot (Tati) and a group of American tourists repeatedly cross paths in Paris during a single 24-hour period, Tati consistently keeps his 70mm camera beyond arm’s length and clutters his soundtrack with random and overlapping snatches of dialogue, musique concrète, and gonzo sound effects. (Tati’s modern buildings tend to say very little visually, but prove quite flatulent aurally.)
The movie’s first half seems unusually sterile for a comedy, which is only natural. It’s not until the movie’s second hour when, vis-à-vis a showstopping sequence in a just-opened restaurant and nightclub, Tati’s proto-Sims begin to live outside the boxes. As the characters tear apart an already fragile interior, Playtime lifts off. You can call it a valiant attempt at representational democracy or you can call it cinema’s closest brush with the joy of people-watching. Either way, Tati gives a radical amount of control over to his viewers, which is one reason he chose to keep his popular Hulot character in the background, if not totally absent, much of the time. So even if each of Playtime‘s viewers—and, for that matter, each of its reviewers—ultimately comes up with similar meta-tags about the movie, you can be sure each person will also see something that just about everyone else missed. (It took me four or five viewings before I even noticed a stuffy restaurant manager marking the rim of a bottle of brandy with soot to see which of his staff members has been sneaking swigs.)
Sure, Tati’s script may have been small, but there’s such depth of content in each setup. It didn’t come easy: Tati spent three years putting the movie together (the centerpiece restaurant sequence alone took nearly two months to shoot), built an entire mini-city, painstakingly demonstrated to each extra (or maybe that should be “inhabitant”) their movements and gestures, re-shot sequences over seemingly inconsequential structural quibbles, and drove the budget up over six times its initial projected cost. With Playtime, Tati made one of the most fully inhabitable films ever. Ironically, it cost Tati his own house.